Aspiration

Europe 1916 by Boardman Robinson

“to raise, not rise out of, their class”*

I used to write meticulously sourced posts on social issues for my or somebody else’s rainy day. But there’s no more time for that, and in any case only people who agreed with me used to read me. Now I write in haste to be able to hold up my end of an argument with UKIP voters in situations where we can see the white of each others’ eyes.

Today it’s all about aspiration. After Thursday’s general election the different parts of the Labour Party and the wider political left are spinning different yarns about Labour’s catastrophe. The account dominating the media today is that of New Labour of yore, as set out by David Miliband to the BBC:

“Gordon, and then Ed, allowed themselves to be portrayed as moving backwards from the principles of aspiration and inclusion that are at the absolute heart of any successful progressive political project.”

What does aspiration mean? Here’s Mandelson (who incidentally has a point about the unions – at least until the union membership starts taking responsibility for their political policies rather than behaving as if they were insurance policies) urging Labour to “champion the aspirational classes”. And here’s Tristram Hunt who said “the Labour party needed to appeal to the “John Lewis community”, including those who aspired to shop there and at Waitrose”.

Tony Blair, who reprogrammed Labour towards the progressive, dynastic individualism which he correctly calculated would bring the party to power, said at the weekend:

“The Labour party has to be for ambition as well as compassion and care. Hard-working families don’t just want us celebrating their hard work; they want to know that by hard work and effort they can rise up, achieve. They want to be better off and they need to know we don’t just tolerate that, we support it.”

He also goes on to commend Ed Miliband’s concern with equality but the two views don’t gel. The “hard-working” tells us Blair’s not talking about simple agency, energy or taking initiative on behalf of one’s community. This is not simply the kind of ambition that the people I admire have at work – to do a thorough job, be a good colleague, make sure the gaps are filled and shape the agenda with good priorities. Or that they have in life – to live in a restrained way which avoids the material waste, dangerous pollution and the environmental and (if they’re cheap) human degradation of unnecessary purchases. It’s not that kind of aspiration. This is a kind of identity politics. It’s the kind of aspiration which pursues the material rewards of personally getting oneself and one’s family ahead (of others, by implication) with superior social status and more money to spend on consumer goods. That’s what ‘better off’ means to most people.

Let’s for a moment forget that I have a varied, autonomous, intellectual job role with commensurate pay and little to complain about. Let’s suppose that I’m back where I was when I started working – delivering papers, jamming the donuts at the local bakers, being a switchboard operator, doing piece work on production lines, being a farm hand, litter picking, washing up in kitchens, serving in shops, bar tending. This will be familiar to most – unqualified, routine work which rarely nourishes the brain, where it doesn’t really matter who does it, where you only do it for the money. A bit closer to the kind of work Blair is talking about, I think, though imagine a few more ‘rise up, achieve’ career progression avenues than there actually were.

If the work is good, do I want to rise up out of it? No – I’m very ambitious indeed, but to do it better. I might want a change once in a while but that’s different. And if the work is objectively menial and soul-destroying, do I want to rise up out of it? No, how can it be right to want to climb out of necessary, unskilled, low status jobs only to bequeath them to other people with fewer choices? These jobs are our shared responsibility and so they should be shared out cooperatively, a civic service we all do each other which reminds us exactly what it is we’re in together. What’s fair or admirable about wanting to get ahead if there’s only room at the top for a shrinking number of families – 66 and dropping – who have the wealth of half of humanity? There shouldn’t be a top in any case since the theory of trickle-down has been discredited by the way wealth in practice has concentrated in small circles, and how those circles didn’t spend the cash but sank it into the buy-to-leave property market, the art market, the gems market. The rising tide didn’t float all boats. In countries where the top 1% take less income, things get better at the bottom of the social heap. They aren’t unrelated – their prospects are connected.

What goes for us and our kids should go for everyone and their kids. If this economy only works when we think of ourselves as temporarily embarrassed millionaires then it’s going to ruin everything. Because of the material aspect to this view of aspiration, this lionising of the “aspirational classes” inevitably undermines the ‘classes’ who don’t chase material gain but work out of pride, diligence and a sense of duty. Environmentalists know that the wealthier the people, the more environmental degradation they cause. Good managers know that motivation at work is related to agency and a sense of making a difference. Psychologists know that in countries with a welfare safety net most of the harm of inequality is socially divisive, to do with the pecking order – where one person stands in relation to another, rather than an absolute cut-off beyond which we are suddenly satisfied with our lot. Aspiration is chasing the dragon.

The people who say that this aspect of New Labour sowed the seeds of last Thursday’s destruction are right, I think. So no to this individualist, consumerist aspiration of Blair, David Miliband, Hunt and Mandy. I hope that part of Labour is soon overtaken.

Sorry about the picture – it’s a little over the top.

Update: Bob’s on politics of aspiration, with links, and from a more strategic POV.

***

Quote source: The prospectus of Ruskin College, Oxford a long time ago.
Image source: Europe 1916 by Boardman Robinson. Work found at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Europe_Boardman_Robinson.jpg.

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